Joe Gunn

May 13, 2013

My first full-time job started in the mid-1970s at the Archdiocese of Regina, setting up a social action office in Archbishop Charlie Halpin's offices on 13th Avenue. Here I met, for the first time, the Sisters of Service, who had their offices on nearby Cameron Street.

Among their many responsibilities, the sisters prepared catechetical resources for far-flung Prairie communities where the Church did not always have a sustained presence. In future years I would meet more of these wonderful sisters, but my depth of appreciation for them and their ministry has recently blossomed by reading a new book about their founder, Catherine Donnelly.

The Courage to Dare: The Spirituality of Catherine Donnelly will be officially launched on May 23 in Toronto by Novalis Publishers. The book is not only inspired reading, however. It turns out to be a must read for people trying to comprehend the religious experience that helped shape our country.

Author Kathryn Perry refers to Catherine as "a pioneer in the new socially oriented movements within the Church." No wonder that, on her 90th birthday she received the papal medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice and in 2000, The Catholic Register placed Catherine on their list of the top 10 people who helped shape the Church in Canada.

So what was the impact of this incredible woman?

Catherine Donnelly (1884-1983) made two unsuccessful attempts to join established religious communities before deciding her vision of teaching and serving in Western Canadian rural settlements could only be realized through the establishment of a new institute. With the help of the Redemptorist Fathers, the sisters were grounded in the spirituality of St. Alphonsus, and encouraged to find and serve "the most abandoned."

Catherine became the first member of the Sisters of Service in 1922. These women were easily recognizable because they did not use the awesome black and white habits of the time, nor was their place in the cloister.


Catherine's sisters would not be reclused from the secular world by regulations, dress or theologies that might restrict their social and religious contact with Protestant or Catholic laity. Their motto was "I come to serve," and the point was that these sisters would "work where other orders had not ventured."

The Sisters of Service worked not only in rural public schools, but also in city hostels, catechetical centres and welcoming immigrants at Canadian ports.

It is instructive that this charism of innovative and socially-oriented ministry, largely unheard of in Canada at the time, was developed some 40 years before the Second Vatican Council. After Vatican II, many of these changes were adopted by religious communities in North America.

Mary Jo Leddy, in her Introduction to The Courage to Dare, reminds us that the council did not just drop down from heaven one day, and calls Catherine "one of the mothers of Vatican II."

Catherine's ministry has been described as a practical pastoral response, in terms of going where the need was, living with and serving the poor and marginalized. She "cleared new pathways to new modes of being in the Church," in spite of the fact that for much of her life she would have lived in a society that would not allow women to vote or to hold public office.

Catherine did have to push back, many times, against the structures of male dominance in her beloved Church.

One wonders what Catherine would have said today about the evaluation of the life of women religious and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States. 57,000 American nuns have been told that the problem with their work is that it has been "tainted by radical feminism."

As Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister wrote, "It is simply impossible to be really committed to the poor and not devote yourself to doing something to change the role and status of women in the world."

The life of Catherine Donnelly was one lived courageously – and one that revelled in daring. This woman leader challenged her Church and her society with this inspiring advice: "We must be brave, daring and trusting in the Holy Spirit." "The courage to dare" remains a gift from these Canadian female pioneers to all followers of Christ today.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)